Borstal Lives : Reflections inspired by the novel by Louis Edward

By Jeremy Millar

Jeremy Millar is a lecturer for the Social Work School of Social Sciences at the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley. He has over 20 years work experience in social work and social care in mainly residential settings. He has taught social work for  ten years and was employed at the Robert Gordon University prior to joining UWS in February 2014.
Jeremy is keen on developing an awareness of the concept and practice of social pedagogy and how this approach could be utilised in the Scottish context. 

 He is a jazz aficionado 

Contact Jeremy at


Borstal Lives

Reflections inspired by the novel by Louis Edward


Tales from Borstal

As a child of the sixties the word Borstal had particularly vivid connotations in my life. It was the place that ‘bad boys’ were sent to. Into the seventies and I recall my school’s own Borstal boys, they dressed in the manner of the anti-heroes of the film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in black Crombie coats and Dr Martin bovver boots; the gang leader sporting a bowler hat and false eye lash. These guys would disappear for periods of time to be subjected to the Borstal form of re-education. They had a profound influence on me both in terms of their fashion sense but also their outsider status.

Time passed and I worked my way up the residential care ladder to become officer in charge of a probation hostel working with young offenders who went in and out of Young Offenders Institutions. In talking to old school prison social workers I became more aware of the Borstal legacy and the distinct choices regarding youth justice that had been taken in Scotland. The Tories were in power at the time and some of their more reactionary figures, Keith Joseph springs to mind, became nostalgic for the good old days of the short sharp shock and this led to the news coverage featuring black and white film of marching youths with shaved heads undertaking Borstal training.

The overall impression was of offenders being subjected to an austere, regimented and somewhat brutalising regime designed to instil discipline, obedience and the work ethic. This was the sum total of my understanding of Borstal until serendipity intervened. It turns out that my neighbour is the daughter of Judah Weinstein, who under the pen name, Louis Edward, wrote the novel Borstal Lives published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. Further to this her mother Pauline Cushing worked at Bodenham Manor where she met Judah who was a friend of David Wills, who features as Mr Masters in the novel. David Wills was a pioneer of therapeutic residential child care in Britain and following his spell as an assistant house master at Borstal he went on to establish his progressive schools for what were termed then ‘maladjusted children’. David Wills was also a Quaker and this prompted my interest further as I come from a Quaker family.

Conversations with Judah’s daughter and wife have contributed some biographical detail for his somewhat remarkable life. Judah is of Ukrainian Jewish descent; his mother and father arrived separately in Glasgow fleeing the pogroms and later moved to the east end of London. His father ‘abandoned’ the family and returned to the Ukraine in 1914. This was possibly to avoid interment as an enemy alien during the First World War. Judah’s family were plunged into poverty and he stole food to support the family. His involvement in petty crime led eventually to a spell at Borstal from which came the inspiration for the novel. Indeed in the book he tells Mr Master of his desire to be a writer. Judah’s post Borstal career involved serving on Atlantic liners during World War Two, as his refusal to fight caused him to be treated as a conscientious objector. This fits with the beliefs of his mentor David Wills, who as a Quaker would have been a conscientious objector. Judah went on to work as a bookseller of educational material which involved travelling the length and breadth of the country visiting educational establishments including the independent progressive schools run by David Wills and others in the field. It was on one of these visits that he met Pauline. They settled in Hackney and Pauline was instrumental in the development of play bus and play schemes and community activities for young mothers. In the seventies a number of factors including fascist activity in the east end persuaded the family to move out to East Anglia where Pauline had family roots.

The timing of the publication of Borstal Lives in 1939 meant that it was somewhat overtaken by events and didn’t make the impression it had the potential to. I am delighted to go some way to a belated reappraisal.

The book

My somewhat stereotypical impression of Borstal has been dispelled by this book which opens up a strange world of Edwardian public school infused with the emerging discipline of psychology. In this passage Judah describes Borstal;

“The Governor was leaving…He was leaving his hundreds of acres, his country residence, his daily ramble over his estate. He was leaving his three hundred slaves, his hundred servants, the dozen or so of his superior staff. He was leaving his comfortable office, overlooking huge gardens of flowers; his resident chaplain; his apartments full of clerks and secretaries.” P104

Borstal is in fact the name of a village in Kent and there has been a long history of prison and correctional facilities being sited in that area of the county. The original Borstal gave name to nationwide provision of youth detention provision. Youth between the age of 16 and 21, later extended to 23 were sentenced to Borstal training in these places.

The interiors are described elsewhere in the book and there is reference to the library, a common room (Top Club) for the top boys, cricket pitch and plans are afoot to build a tennis court. The sound of jazz reverberates down the hall as the boys lounge against radiators. There are no walls or fences and the ‘slaves’ occasionally make a run for it but the overall impression is that of tightly run English public school with a somewhat reluctant and recalcitrant student body. The boys have individual rooms that they are locked into at night and these appear to be quite stark.

The ‘servants’ include house masters and matrons who live on site and maintain a balance of discipline and pastoral care. The work is undertaken by the boys who are organised into work parties under the supervision of fellow inmates (House Captains) who have earned their privilege to command. There is a colour distinction in the uniforms with new boys starting as ‘browns’ and progressing to become a ‘blue’. The inmates are divided into Houses under the authority of Housemasters and there are assistants and matrons for each House. Louis appears to remain in the same House for the duration of his sentence.

Louis’s admission into Borstal clearly illustrates the nature of the institution and the emotional impact he feels;

“I felt lonely-painfully lonely, as though in a pit, a roomy, empty pit. Dark and damp. It took me a long time to be comforted. There was a friendly Housemaster. He played table tennis with me, and offered to lend me some poetry.” P17

This was Mr Masters, David Wills, the man who offered the young Louis hope and encouragement to pursue his dreams. The book is punctuated with these moments of kindness.

Judah describes the endemic anti-Semitism quite dispassionately punctuated with bursts of fury when it appears to cross a line. The bullying is pervasive but it appears contained within clear rules around pecking orders and degrees of just retribution. There is a sense that the staff permit considerable leeway for the boys to maintain discipline whilst holding the right to impose the multitude of rules to the letter if required. Indeed a constant theme revolves around the leadership styles of the Housemasters and the Governor which appear to be progressive hence the disappointment when the Governor departs to be replaced by a more authoritarian figurehead.


The routine of Borstal is tedious and the following extracts catch this aspect of the training;

“The House! Twelve Party. Six all correct, Sir!” He turned to us. “Party-shun! Quick march!” P23

“ We started to scrub under the centre bridge, working towards the entrance gate. We divided the width of the floor between three of us. And scrubbed. That’s all we had to do. …We didn’t scrub forcefully or rapidly or efficiently…My back didn’t ache, my knees weren’t sore, my arms didn’t hurt. But I was sick and tired of the job-all of its various details. I hated spending four hours in the morning, and four hours in the afternoon, and again tomorrow with nothing to look at but the red tiles of the floor.” P24

Later in the book Louis moves onto outdoor work in the grounds which included compounding stones on the roads on the estate and farm related work.

The House had within the daily routine the Silent Hour from six until seven in the evening;

“The Silent Hour passed. Quietly. I could do anything I pleased, anything educational. I could write a letter or read an instructive book from the library.” P28

Louis lists a range of creative activities that could also be undertaken during the Silent Hour. The impression is once again of strict behavioural routines designed to instil obedience and the work ethic counter balanced by opportunities for self- improvement. In Louis’s case this eventually extended to encouragement to write and run the House journal, write and direct a play and oversee the construction of a tennis court.

Mr Masters and Dutch, the Housemaster, appear not to wholly believe in the efficacy mindless routine and pointless tasks to reform those in their care as they encourage the lads to develop their talents and in the case of Louis promote him to the Top Club despite his ongoing infringements of the rules. I get the sense that they cultivated an elite class within the House. This has a parallel with the prefect and fagging system in the public schools and the military model of privilege for the officer class. In this passage Judah describes Dutch and speculates on his feelings about his role;

“He was busy writing, engrossed, bowed over his desk. His hair had fallen loose over his forehead; the cigarette had gone out, neglected between his lips…He too was caught in the system. Like a harassed clerk, he reported the welfare of his lads, telling clerks in Whitehall….Outside in the hall there were seventy people-seventy strangers- who had to say “sir” to him and stand to attention in front of his desk to be punished. What could he do for them, except feel slightly bewildered, slightly guilty? He made his pathetic reports; and all the sad muddle of things in his office stood helpless surrounding.” P84

Another Housemaster is described thus;

“He was a brilliant lawyer, a psychologist, unstable, dynamic, devoted to the boys in his House. His love frightened the screws. He kept on demanding that the blokes should be allowed to assert their personality, be allowed to express themselves….”Don’t treat them like cyphers. They’re men, grown up. How can they be happy if you don’t allow them to deny your judgement, to use their own initiative? They’ll be unable to live without your help. Let them learn now!”” P129

Here we can see clearly the application of developmental theory and the understanding of relational practice including the need for love. This Master appears to have been tolerated as a maverick in the system and he organised the House Council and was another who encouraged Louis in his love of reading and writing.

Association, presumably coming after the silent hour, is free time which is typified by boisterous horseplay and general letting off of steam. Louis describes the role of the Johnnie, the most popular bloke in the House;

“He played the piano-pounded it. Jazz, fluently, with a clear understanding of the function of rhythm in Borstal. The lads didn’t want tone or melody. They wanted songs with a lusty movement. They wanted to live. They wanted to stamp their feet and bellow with the abandon of youths for a moment not doing Borstal.” P41

Anyone who has worked in residential child care will get this although the soundtrack may have been different. They will also understand this poignant insight into the true nature of Johnnie, the most popular bloke in the House;

“It gave them what they so desperately craved; respite from the boredom. It gave him nothing, not even satisfaction. The harder he pounded the keys, the louder he sang, the more miserable he was. The greater his ability to infuse hope in others, the darker was his own mood…He didn’t care for anyone. They could all do as they liked and so would he. That was his attitude. But he was highly strung and emotional. His boldness was a defence, his bonhomie a subterfuge.” P41

This and other characterisations paint a vivid picture of young men trapped by circumstance, constrained by the institution bearing down on all aspects of their existence shot through with existential moments of freedom, literal and metaphysical.

Eating of meals in the institution was according to Judah a busy and exciting time. Mail was distributed and extra rations of food negotiated. The colourful nature of this aspect of the routine is summed up by Louis thus;

“Meal-times were like weddings in slum alley.” P75




These more enlightened approaches come under the scrutiny of Whitehall and the decision is made to replace the Governor as;

“We had been giving dissatisfaction. We hadn’t done all we ought. We had been getting slack. We had been too well treated, not well enough trained… We had been allowed in some mysterious way to become shiftless   and idle and careless. We needed a little firmness. We would soon get it.” P115

“With solemn eyes, we awaited the Governor…He would promise a tighter routine…He would at once revoke certain privileges, impose new standards of conduct…We shivered in the draught of the new broom; we huddled dismayed on the floor, awaiting the Governor’s lecture.” P177

The reality began to filter through in greater control of food and access to tea. The Governor noted that half the porridge was being wasted and fed to the pigs so he cut the amount in half. Despite these and other reforms the daily activities appear to have continued until the Deputy Governor leaves. Part of the new broom as the Governor consolidated his power.

“The new man would be tactful, amenable, discreet; keeping his opinions private, preferring to do what his master would prefer to have done. The institution would flourish. But we wouldn’t.” P233

Here we can see parallels with the imposition of new managerialism into residential child care and the ensuing loss of professional autonomy and identity.

Towards the end of the book Judah tells the story of a young man who attempts to escape and the brutalisation that he is subjected to. This includes solitary confinement in a bare cell with only the Bible for company. He is put on number one rations which is bread and water. He only gets out to attend Chapel. He repeated his attempts to break free being beyond caring and the true brutality of the regime is exposed;

“There he was visited by the screw who had lost him and bashed him up. The screw who took him to the cells also bashed him up ; and the screw who received him at the cells had a go.” P271

He also tells of the holiday camping trip which ended in tragedy after some inmates stole a car and knocked a lady down resulting in terrible news headlines and the ending of camping trips. Once again there are themes familiar to anyone who has taken young people on trips and holidays.

The repercussions of this event proved to be wide ranging with many of the progressive activities being stopped;

“Like a grandfather clock, they continued to exist under constant supervision; they continued to live in the rut determined for them; they continued in listlessness, boredom, to express their adult, pathetic need…Every day they worked eight hours, slept eight hours and had the rest mapped out. Every day they played games in the hall for an hour…The House settled down…” P310-311

At the end of the book Judah reflects on the purpose and efficacy of Borstal as well as introducing the Chaplain and offering some redemptive musings on love and compassion.

“If only Borstal would confess it doesn’t do anything constructive, except provide opportunities.”

“And only the lucky ones, the ones who refuse to be trained, the ones who insist on their personality, get taught how to use them.” P317

““And the end, the aim, the ideal is obedience and gratitude,” said Richard disgustedly. “initiative is an impertinence,” I grumbled.” P318

He uses the fact that he is now being trained in the wood shed cutting timber to round off the book with a reflection on self and freedom;

“Let me begin to fashion, to mould, to create myself. Let me start soon to live, to write. Let me build a world of dreams and moods and impressions. Let me conjure a rainbow. Roll on! Roll on !….let me begin to construct and create, let me adventure courageously. Let me know the satisfaction of achievement, the agonies of creation, the scorn for shoddy labour. Let me remain honest to myself, invincible, contemptuous. Let me make my life , my work! Oh, let me be free! Not this year, not this winter. I had to remain, I had to get fit, get trained. I had to deal with timber. Roll on! Oh! Let me be born! Roll on!” P320


Earlier this year my eldest daughter was offered the opportunity to attempt to gain employment in the current Borstal, a Secure Training Centre run by G4S presumably on the original site. This was for the purpose of exposing the regime in the centre. G4S have created one of the most tightly controlled and sterile environments possible for the ‘treatment’ of children. It quickly became apparent that she would be unable to bring any recording devices into the Centre.

The contrast with the original Borstal philosophy is stark in terms of how the State now contracts out the brutalising aspects of their coercive power and further poisons it with a profit motive. The theme of breaking the will of inmates still looms large as this review of the Carlile Report from the Howard League spells out.

“The Howard League lawyers are representing children who have been subjected to what is euphemistically called “touch and hold” which is a physical intervention by G4S staff outside the rules governing restraint, and Mr Cook said that this was not recorded. He suggested that using pain on children to control them was preferable to prolonged restraint! But under questioning he did agree to release CCTV footage of the use of “touch and hold” in accordance with the normal rules of evidence which G4S has been refusing to do so far, so some good news.” Howard League 2011

The Ofsted reports paint a picture of a tightly controlled closed environment that relies on points systems, searches, separation and external controls. Whilst compliance and ‘safety’ can be evidenced in this environment one has to question if there is any scope left for the individual to flourish as Louis Edward did through the kindness of significant adults who exercised control over his life.


Edward, L. (1939) Borstal Lives, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd

Howard League